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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
More high school football games are being televised nationally. But are the players ready for the attention?
By Joey Knight
Published August 28, 2007
He realizes his opinion may be as outdated as game film on videocassette, but that's the purist in Billy Turner.
The venerable Chamberlain High football coach, on the cusp of iconic and septuagenarian status, has watched his sport evolve from small time to prime time.
Perhaps he was being naive, but he never believed the figurative grass roots in which prep football had always been played would some day bear tire tracks - of TV trucks.
"A lot of young coaches are going to think I'm out of touch and that maybe I should just hang it up and get out of the way. But I see high school football as ... it's amateur football," Turner said.
"I know it makes money, but I'd like to see it stay pure and stay amateur, and when you start televising high school games live locally and all over the country, I don't see the purpose of it. ... Maybe that's the way it's going to become."
To the chagrin of Turner and fellow purists everywhere, that's the way it has become.
For the second year in a row, ESPN's smorgasbord of networks is broadcasting prep football games 14 this year as part of its ESPNU High School Showcase.
Fox Sports Net has a 10-game national broadcast package, in addition to more than 100 set to be telecast on one of its 19 regional networks. The past two years, MTV's Two-a-Daysdocumented the season of Alabama prep juggernaut Hoover High.
"We're very excited about the ratings we get across the board on the various networks," said James Brown, ESPN's senior vice president of new programming development.
Elsewhere, the literary phenomenon that was Friday Night Lights, depicting the football factory at Odessa (Texas) Permian High, spawned a 2004 feature film and television show that drew 5.7-million viewers last season, according to the Nielsen Media Research Web site.
Locally, 24-hour regional sports network Catch 47, which has broadcast an area prep football game of the week on a tape-delay basis in recent years, is broadcasting them live this season. Elliott Wiser, vice president of local programming for Bright House Networks, which owns the channel, said the advertising spots for more than half the games have sold out.
"It's huge," Wiser said.
But is it healthy?
This is the question that counterbalances the thrill of seeing a fleet of production trucks overtake your local student parking lot. Dr. Richard Ginsburg, a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant at Massachusetts General Hospital, is among those raising it.
"I have a similar kind of feeling about the Little League World Series and the kind of press it gets, whether it's a good thing for kids," Ginsburg said. "There is something to not being ready for prime time."
But ready or not, prime time has been thrust upon the prep landscape. Wiser, creator of Catch 47, says for all the logistical legwork prep football game coverage demands, its popularity likely will keep growing among regional and cable networks.
Coaches like exposure
Many coaches hope the exposure only increases, if for no other reason than the opportunity it affords their players to get noticed by a college coach.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan said that one hour after his team defeated Jefferson on a game televised nationally by ESPNU last season, a scout from Middle Tennessee called to offer a scholarship to Hawks speedster Deondre Kyles, who returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
"We have nothing but positive things to say about (the broadcast)," Callahan said. "Our goal is, we want to play out of state, we want to play at a national level. As far as exposure goes, the way I do things and mainstream everything, it's a positive for us. Could there be some negative things? Sure there could."
Among the potential negatives is what Ginsburg calls "professionalizing" high school sports.
"I hate to see high school football become a commercial thing, where the next thing you know high school kids are doing a commercial, high school coaches are getting an endorsement," Turner said. "Maybe that's the future."
Ginsburg, co-author of Whose Game Is It Anyway? A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports, Organized by Age and Stage, asks whether kids' talents are being showcased for colleges or their failures exploited for the sake of entertainment.
Perhaps adding validity to his concerns is what has occurred at Hoover in the wake of MTV's convergence on the program.
Alex Binder, among the featured Hoover players, was arrested after his senior year for breaking and entering. Former principal Richard Bishop was fired amid accusations he changed football players' grades.
"MTV looks for the trash and the garbage and tries to create the negative," former Hoover athletic director Jerry Browning told the News Star of Monroe, La.
Former North Penn (Pa.) High coach Mike Pettine's experience with high-profile documentaries was far more positive.
Pettine, now outside linebackers coach of the Baltimore Ravens, allowed ESPN to chronicle his North Penn team's 1999 campaign for a series titled The Season.
While Pettine said some in the community unfamiliar with the intense grind and oft-profane coaching vernacular of Pennsylvania prep football were "taken aback" by the series, the response from those familiar with the sport and even outside the area was positive.
"I think a lot of it is, what's the agenda of the people that are filming it," said Pettine, whose team finished 11-2. "Is it just reality? As you know, reality shows can be steered in a lot of different directions. I enjoyed it, but at the same time, we were at their mercy."
Emphasizing the good
Brown says ESPN's intentions are noble, saying his network's broadcasts of prep football resembles its Little League World Series coverage in terms of emphasizing the feats and feel-good stories and de-emphasizing the miscues.
Callahan corroborates, pointing out that ESPNU did a brief segment on Hawks cornerback Aubrey Hadley, who lost an arm at age 2, during its game broadcast.
Yet the concerns linger. For instance, what about the 15-year-old who fumbles at the goal line on live TV?
"As a kid, something like that happens to them and that defines them; there's the potential to be scarred," Pettine said. "When it was all said and done, we took the potential good with the bad and the athletes understood that stepping out there subjects them to both sides of it."
But what about other fears? Will some coaches curb the rules to generate TV exposure for their program? And does a perennially weak program ever have the chance of being on a broadcast?
All questions that likely will be answered in time.